By Ashley M. Casey
Bring your boots: rain or shine, young nature enthusiasts will be facing off tomorrow at the Oswego County Envirothon, held at Jellystone Park in Mexico.
Since 1991, the Oswego County Soil and Water Conservation District has sponsored the county’s Envirothon, a hands-on test of high school students’ knowledge of forestry, aquatics, soils, wildlife and current environmental issues.
The county winner goes on to the New York state competition. Last year’s county champion, Altmar-Parish-Williamstown, came in 11th of 49 teams at the state Envirothon.
“(Envirothon) encourages students to be more in tune with the environment and the natural resources in the county,” said Erica Schreiner, district educator of the Oswego County Soil and Water Conservation District and Envirothon Coordinator.
The competition consists of five 30-minute exams with 25 questions, plus a video presentation submitted prior to the event.
Teams of five students must properly identify trees, analyze soil and perform other tasks to demonstrate their environmental knowledge. Schools can send two teams of five with up to two alternates.
Local experts in each field create a new test for each subject each year. This year, the Oswego County branch of Cornell Cooperative Extension is covering the current issue of sustainable local agriculture.
Schreiner said Envirothon is an outdoorsy outlet to keep students engaged.
“It sparks their interest in something and gives them something to belong to,” she said. “It’s a great hands-on event.”
Some Envirothon participants pursue the interest after high school.
“A lot of them do go on to ESF (SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry) at Syracuse and other environmental colleges,” Schreiner said.
Jamie Hefti, adviser of two Envirothon teams at Pulaski, said one of his graduating senior “stars” will study biology at Harvard University and another is headed to Clarkson University for environmental engineering.
He said the competition’s individual focus helps prepares students for college, especially the oral video presentation.
“It’s so self-directed. It’s on them,” Hefti said. “When I watched them prepare for the oral part of it, I think it’s the most truly applicable skill for preparing for college that there is in high school.”
Hefti said he has a study area in his classroom for students to visit and borrow materials when they have a free period during the day. The students each become an “expert” on one of the subjects and coach each other.
“It’s really an awesome thing to observe,” he said.
Roxane Thormann and her husband, Rich, led the APW team to a surprise victory last year. The Thormanns volunteered to coach APW’s Envirothon team after their daughter’s beloved science teacher retired. Roxane Thormann said she and her husband, who are not teachers, faced a “big learning curve” in coaching the kids in environmental science.
“We were awestruck,” Thormann said of the 2013 win, which was APW’s first Oswego County Envirothon victory. “We didn’t have any idea we had it in us. (The team was) just flabbergasted.”
Catherine Celeste and Billie Jo Peterson are the co-advisers of the environmental club at Oswego High School The club is open to students in grades seven through 12, so it provides a “feeder group” of middle schoolers preparing for the high school Envirothon team.
“I have a lot of younger kids … getting some of the preparation long before they have a chance to compete in it,” Celeste said.
In addition to the Envirothon, Oswego’s environmental club focuses on eco-tourism, fundraising and cleaning up around the district.
“We hope, bottom line, that there’s a better appreciation for nature, and we want our students to be better earth stewards,” Celeste said. “Every year they’re going to Envirothon, I know they’re learning something they didn’t know before.”
She said her students have worked hard to prepare for Envirothon.
“I’m proud that we can get students who put the time in,” she said.
Missing from tomorrow’s competition is ten-time consecutive winner G. Ray Bodley High School. The Fulton school is not fielding a team this year. Bodley last won in 2012, but was ousted last year by APW.
“Due to new duties and responsibilities, I relinquished the helm and it just didn’t transfer well for the students,” former GRB Envirothon adviser Dan Mainville told The Valley News in an email. “Sadly there just wasn’t enough interest this year. Maybe next year.”
“We will definitely miss them, but it opens up opportunities for other schools to win,” Schreiner said of Bodley’s absence from the competition.
“It opens the door a little bit for us,” Celeste said. “My students are a little more motivated now because they feel they can be more competitive.”
“There’s always someone to replace Fulton,” Thormann said. “I’m sure there’s someone who wants to knock us off the pedestal. All the teams are tough.”